Fallout is basically about Ethan holding on, not just to elevators, helicopters, or sliding rocks, but to immortality and the ridiculous notion of the perfect man. He is fast, strong, invincible, heroic, ethical, flawless, and oh yes, “he’s only cared about two women his whole life.”
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The sixth installment in the Mission: Impossible series, Fallout (2018), is turning out to be the movie of the summer, at least in blockbuster terms. This used to be an unorthodox franchise. It was not initially designed to have continuity; it offered talented directors the opportunity to put their spin on the series; and finally, it did not follow our current expectations in terms of regular output (the Marvel Universe, with nineteen films in just over ten years, has particularly deformed those expectations). While the first five installments had pauses of four to six years between them, the last two, Rogue Nation (2015) and Fallout, came out only three years apart and featured the same director, Christopher McQuarrie. So, what is behind the success of one of the most enduring franchises in Hollywood? Given that Mission spans three decades, it seems worthwhile to look back at the series, the new installment included, and reflect upon its steady (if not increasing) popularity.
It all starts in 1996 with Brian De Palma’s slick reinvention of the spy genre. This was a big year for Tom Cruise, who also released Jerry Maguire in the fall. While Cruise would be nominated for an Oscar for his work as a sports agent, it was the first Mission that would launch what has clearly become today his most recognizable role – the spy aptly named Ethan Hunt. In a summer that brought on several other major hits (Independence Day and Twister most prominently), the tremendous success of the film, and later of the series, was most likely connected to the inventive, over-the-top stunts, the relentless trickery, and ultimately to Tom Cruise’s star-power, even at 56. One less obvious element, though, is a myth that slowly develops over the span of the series and comes to full bloom in Fallout. In this latest installment, it is unsurprising that the classic message of all the missions – “should you choose to accept it” – is relayed to Hunt inside a volume of Homer’s Odyssey. The odyssey, Hunt’s eternal quest, is to become the perfect man.
I will not dwell on the convoluted meanderings of Fallout’s plot – the storyline is always irrelevant when one knows the mission will eventually turn out well. Success is obviously a necessary constant in the series. What changes in the sixth film, however, is the level of concern in making sure that we know Hunt is a good man: he will not sacrifice one single life, and he is acutely aware of himself and the consequences of his actions. Early in the film, he gives up on the mission to recover plutonium in order to save Luther’s life. Since Luther (Ving Rhames) is the only other character to appear in all six films, and a close friend of Hunt’s, the decision makes sense. It also makes sense at the time for him to save agent Walker (Henry Cavill) in the stunning parachuting scene. Then again, later in the film Hunt also decides to save a random French policewoman and makes sure that no collateral damage occurs during the Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) kidnapping. In both moments, considerable camera attention is given to Hunt’s face, contorted by guilt and ethical pondering. McQuarrie even resorts to an imagined flash-forward – narrative trickery! – that further explores Hunt’s rising fear that he may have to do something nefarious. Naturally, Hunt makes the right call, and eventually also saves a third of the globe’s population. Yet, if in the other Missions his actions are done instinctually and seamlessly, Hunt needs actual pauses for reflection here to make sure he does the right thing.
Perhaps this need is a result of Cruise’s complicated off-screen persona, or perhaps it is the natural consequence and projection of an increasingly paranoid society that might be less and less in touch with “real” things (why else would the superhero fetish develop so drastically?). Are we good people? Could we be … Ethan? Ethan Hunt comes from a long line of action heroes: the manly man of the ’70s (Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson), the invincible heroes of the ’80s (Norris, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Gibson), followed by more invincibility in the ’90s (the same guys, but they can’t believe they’re older, plus Van Damme who can’t believe he is the movies), but also followed by the advent of the flawed-yet-still-invincible hero (Bruce Willis’s John McClane being the archetype). As the Mission series evolved, Hunt’s character and the films themselves have also become indebted to Jason Bourne (think Paris chase scenes) and, naturally, to James Bond. The problem with the last guy is, of course, his womanizing. Given his quest for perfection, Ethan Hunt would never admit that his type is “not single,” as Daniel Craig once quipped in Casino Royale (2006). As for Bourne, well, he cannot even remember if he is a good guy or not. Hunt erases all of the weaknesses we have ever noticed in any of these screen heroes. Finally, Cruise shows off a few wrinkles on the side of his eyes, and his stubble is finally showing us a few specks of white, but these are negligible details. In fact, in a moment of supreme irony, Luther tells Julia (Michelle Monaghan) that Ethan is “Oh you know, same old Ethan.” That’s true, minus the old. The end of Fallout finds Hunt free rock climbing just as he did eighteen years earlier in the cold open for the second Mission, hanging off the Utah cliffs, arms stretched horizontally in an improbable cross, smiling back to us heavenly: “I can do all things (by myself).” So, Fallout is basically about Ethan holding on, not just to elevators, helicopters, or sliding rocks, but to immortality and the ridiculous notion of the perfect man. He is fast, strong, invincible, heroic, ethical, flawless, and oh yes, “he’s only cared about two women his whole life” (who happen to look alike by the way, so that’s essentially one woman). This personal detail seems to be an important requirement in the mythology of the perfect man. Moreover, when the two women meet, they like each other – relationship trickery! – and must say so out loud for the audience, so that there would be no judging our hero’s choices.
How we got to this perfect version of Hunt is worth exploring, because De Palma’s Mission masochistically makes Hunt repress sexual frustration: He pines for a woman married to the rogue IMF director, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight). Midway through the film, there is this great moment when the wife, Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), comes back to the safe house, where Ethan had fallen asleep. In spite of having taken precautions (he breaks a light bulb and sprinkles the shards in the hallway to cause noise), he does not hear her come into the room. Startled, he picks up the gun and points it at her in a frenzy, twisting his neck back and forth between the door and the intruder. That is Hunt in a nutshell when it comes to women in the first Mission: confused1, paranoid, uncertain. Needless to say, he does not fire his gun once throughout the entire film.
In this instance, Hunt is a victim of De Palma’s obsession with violence and sexuality, some of which comes, famously, by way of Alfred Hitchcock. There are plenty of references to Hitchcock in the first Mission: a MacGuffin (the NOC list) that becomes a staple of the series (remember the ludicrous rabbit’s foot from the third Mission?); trains and tunnels, mistaken identities and spies (John Woo’s second Mission is basically the plot of Notorious); and most ingenious of all is the early death of seemingly major characters, all played by recognizable names, in the Prague sequence (just like Janet Leigh in Psycho). Hitchcock undertones aside, De Palma certainly gives this film a style and an atmosphere that, at the time, felt unusual for an action flick. There are, for example, jarring close-ups and Dutch angles, especially during Ethan’s debriefing with his CIA handler. The film also gives us the most iconic image of the show – one that would come back several times throughout the next Missions: Ethan horizontally hanging in the air, barely off the ground, in a room where no sound must be made, the temperature must not rise, and he must not touch the floor. In other words,
As opposed to De Palma, John Woo’s Mission 2 (2000) puts Ethan in bed with Nyah (Thandie Newton) during the first half hour. The physical act is not shown – we only see Ethan wake up next to her – so what follows is more sexual frustration. As a matter of fact, Hunt even has to send his love on a mission to (re)seduce a rogue agent. The scene during which he impatiently waits for the satellite video to upload so he can check up on Nyah, followed by him looking forlorn toward the Australian sunset (complete with a lens flare effect that unknowingly anticipates the arrival of J. J. Abrams as the third director of the series), is perhaps the lowest point of this perfect man’s infallible masculinity.
Parenthetically, Woo’s film consistently gets ranked last among the six Missions, perhaps unfairly. It is the one film in which everything is over the top – the stunts, the fights, the masks – everything is overblown, but that is the Hong Kong director’s style (plus pigeons). This is, after all, the director who chose to have Jean-Claude Van Damme stand on a motorcycle in one scene and bite on the tail of a snake in another in Hard Target (1993).2 There are no snakes in Mission 2, but there are plenty of motorcycles: in one scene, Ethan actually dismounts his motorcycle while driving it and, running alongside it, successfully avoids an onslaught of bullets. With Woo, everything has to be most complicated, including the hair of his stars. Both Van Damme and Cruise sport long locks, and you cannot convince me that the success of these scenes is not connected to the extra flair provided by their manes.
Even though the second Mission ends with a classic Hollywood moment of reunification for the two lovers, the third Mission erases Nyah’s character without a trace. It’s complicated, isn’t it? Not to be cynical about it, but she is both a thief and a minority, so she could not possibly be Hunt’s equal! Even her name sounds like a negative! Anyway, in the third episode – the one we will always remember for the series’ most vicious villain, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian – Ethan finds his perceived equal in Julia. He is slightly off-base, of course, because we would have to wait until the fifth Mission, and for a social realignment, for him to come across an actual equal, but again, one who looks very similar to Julia, so you know, he wasn’t that wrong after all. In the fifth installment (Rogue Nation, 2015), Ethan Hunt not only meets his match, but is perhaps outdone by her. By sheer numbers, given all the insane feats that Hunt attempts throughout the series, there needed to be at least one moment of going too far. This moment occurs during the film’s Morocco sequence, when Hunt runs out of oxygen in an underwater stunt. It is British super-spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who saves and then resuscitates him. Yet nothing happens between the two, although the tension is palpable. Toward the end of the film, she offers him the choice (justifying her last name?) to run away with her, but he passes. At this point we do not quite know why. The logical explanation is that we return to the classic Hollywood myth of the frontier man, the adventurer (usually a cowboy) who cannot settle down because there are more important things to do and discover. In the sixth film, though, we learn that he was perhaps still hung up on Julia after all, and on top of that unresolved relationship, he had put the weight of the world on his shoulders. Luther explains to Ilsa that the marriage between Ethan and Julia did not work out because Ethan constantly worried about the world needing him and him not being out there to save it. He is now Batman. More on superheroes in a moment.
With a series of this magnitude and length it is very difficult not to fall into the trap of the common and the repetitive. Mission generally does a good job at poking fun at itself, or at least at letting us know when they try. For example, in Ghost Protocol (2011), the mission message Hunt receives does not self-destruct in five seconds, so he has to go back to the public phone and punch it before it goes up in smoke. Ah, things are not always clockwork in the spy world. This is a kind of requirement nowadays – a movie aware of itself and not taking itself too seriously. But it is an empty gesture: we all know this is a fake game and we are OK with it. We are here for the wows, so you can skip the meta parts. The problem is that these incursions outside the fake world of the film occasionally take the audience way too far into the “real.” Granted, Mission has always been the type of film that relies on misdirection, sleight of hand, and masks; in a word, magic. In one of the famous scenes of the first Mission, Hunt bluffs his way through a magic trick meant to convince Krieger (Jean Reno) that he is not in the possession of the NOC list. And, as with everything in the series, it works. In the latest installment, Walker figures out faster than anyone else that he has been tricked by Benji (Simon Pegg) playing bad guy Solomon Lane, and yet he is still a bit too late. His reaction mimics the reaction of a trained audience that has fallen for these tricks less and less over the six films. What I mean by going too far, though, is the CNN bit. The scene does follow the tradition of fake rooms in the Mission films: the very first one begins in a fake studio, with a masked Hunt speaking Russian; the third one also features a fake hospital room with Hunt much better disguised. Fallout gives Benji what he had been asking over the span of two films: the opportunity to wear a mask. But it is not any mask: Benji plays CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who gives a short cameo. The team succeeds, of course, in creating the illusion and extracting the necessary information out of the rogue scientist, but in today’s environment, this double play on “fake news” felt somehow sadder, not funnier.
What does seem funnier with each installment is how much we are treated to Hunt/Cruise running at top speed. This has become one of the staples of the series ever since he ran faster than flowing water in the high-angle crane shot De Palma used in Prague. Hunt runs in every single Mission, but because the goal is to one-up the previous film, Fallout offers about ten minutes straight of Hunt at full tilt. It is breathtaking for everyone involved, audience included. There is a scene in J. J. Abrams’s Mission in which Hunt runs on a collapsing bridge as a jet shoots a missile at him. At the moment of impact, Hunt’s body is thrown clear into the side of a car. He stumbles, ever so slightly, but then keeps on running, impervious to trauma. He is faster – literally, the series seems to suggest – than a speeding bullet. Which brings me to Superman and to Henry Cavill’s glorious mustache that apparently ruined Justice League (2017). The mustache tries to take the Walker character as far as possible from Superman, and it almost succeeds. However, Cavill is still Superman, and although he towers over Cruise in every scene, Hunt naturally gets the better of him. Not only does Hunt beat Superman, but he disfigures him and turns him into a cartoonish Bond-villain type as well. In the end, Ethan Hunt is the last man standing; not only on that rock, but in the universe of action heroes. He is the perfect spy, with a perfect record of success and impeccable ethics; he is a smiling Messiah, Batman-like, better than Superman, and a one-woman man. He is the perfect man. And we love it. Too bad it’s all fake news.
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All images are screenshots from the trailers or the DVDs of the films.
- Speaking of confusion: Fallout features an odd homoerotic moment. Hunt and Walker had dragged an unconscious target into a bathroom stall, at which point four Frenchmen try to join their “party.” Hunt and Walker nervously hold the door, which allows the bad guy to regain consciousness. Following this line of interpretation, Hunt and Walker end up getting their butts kicked by their “confusion.” [↩]
- That said, if you’re going to see only one Van Damme movie, this is the one. And JCVD (2008). [↩]